Weekly Confessional: Awkward texts
I once received a text from a number unknown to both my phone and me that said simply, “Dis Shelia”. I had no idea who this person was. I had no idea if her name was actually Sheila, as I’m not even sure how I’d pronounce Shelia. It didn’t matter, though, because I’ve never known anybody named Sheila or Shelia, so this was a wrong number text. I confess the first idea that popped into my head upon reading that text was to reply, “Dis not who you think it is”.
No sooner had the thought popped into my head, my brain started processing questions about it? Is that offensive? Is that poking fun at the text or the texter? Is there a difference? Is it racist for me to assume this is a black woman or is it just my brain doing probabilities? Wait, was that last question racist? The panicked questions of myself didn’t stop there.
I tried to think of whether there was some way I could tweak the text so it would have less chance to be offensive, but still make the same joke. You see, I get texts and emails intended for other people quite often. When it happens, I like to let them know they’re not reaching the person they intended but I also like to throw in a joke or playful wording so they know I’m not replying out of annoyance.
I wasn’t comfortable with the joke I would have been making in that text, though. Introducing a racial element to joking around with somebody is obviously a very sensitive thing. I’ve only ever done it with people who I’ve established a clear friendship and who have given every social indicator I can pick up on that it’s okay.
For example, I used to work at a Barnes and Noble. One night, I was working the registers and two of my co-workers were black women. Another one of our white female co-workers was heading out for lunch and one of the black women asked where she was going. The white woman answered in what she thought was her “black woman voice”.
As soon as she was out the door, one of the black women said to the other, “I don’t like when she does that voice.”
This made me a little nervous. I considered both of these women my friends and when we had joked around in the past, I had done my “Barry White voice”. So I asked, “Do either of you get offended when I do my Barry White voice or stuff like that when we’re kidding around?”
One of them answered, “No, Matt, I can tell you’re just kidding around, having fun. When she does it, it’s like she’s making fun of us.”
“Yeah, Matt. We’re cool.”
“Good. Because you know I’m full of soul and sometimes it just busts out.”
We all laughed and I like to think it was genuinely. I hope it was genuine. Even though they assured me it was okay and every social indicator I could pick up suggested it was okay, and we were friends, I still was just pretty sure it was okay.
So, no, I wasn’t going to send a text to a stranger that would require assuming the playful tone would come through as not offensive or mocking. Being able to add a racial (hopefully, hopefully, hopefully not racist) element to joking around with others requires building up a lot of “relationship equity” with that person. It’s not something you can just jump straight into. Well, if you do, you’re taking a risk I’ve never been willing to take.
Out of curiosity, though, I asked some friends (also white) if they thought the text I had originally – and very briefly – considered was offensive. They chuckled and said they weren’t sure it would be offensive. They didn’t say it very comfortably, though, and asked if I ended up replying to the wrong number.
“Yes. I just said, ‘You’ve reached the wrong number’.” So uncomfortable with the possibility of making a joke that could have been offensive, I opted for a robo-reply. I still think it was the right decision, though I must admit I envision the person on the other end making fun of my reply.
Now, before I wrap this up, let me say: I’m not complaining about not being able to make edgy jokes. I’m not somebody who complains that “black people can make jokes about white people, but…” I didn’t feel comfortable making a joke in a text with a stranger. There’s no sacrifice there.
I bring it up because I’m curious to hear other’s thoughts on this type of situation. Is this hypersensitivity on my part or is the only good policy to avoid introducing jokes that could be considered “racial” until you’ve been given every indication it’s okay?
I confess I had to laugh at the fact that this confession has my stomach in knots, but I look forward to hearing what thoughts others might have.
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